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The Nihilist movement was a Russian movement in the 1860s which rejected all authorities. It is derived from the Latin nihil, meaning "nothing". After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the Nihilists were known throughout Europe as proponents of the use of violence in order to bring about political change.
The Nihilists were angered by what they described as the abusive nature of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the tsarist monarchy, and by the domination of the economy by the aristocracy. Although the term Nihilist was first used by the German theologian Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, its widespread usage began with the 1862 novel Fathers and Sons by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev. The main character of the novel, Eugene Bazarov, who describes himself as a Nihilist, wants to educate the people. This "go to the people – be the people" campaign reached its height in the 1870s, during which underground groups such as Circle of Tchaikovsky, People's Will and Land and Liberty were formed. This became known as the Narodnik movement, whose members believed that the newly freed serfs were merely being sold into wage slavery in the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and that the middle and upper classes had effectively replaced landowners. The Russian state attempted to suppress them. In actions described by the Nihilists as propaganda of the deed many government officials were assassinated. In 1881 Alexander II was killed on the very day he had approved a proposal to call a representative assembly to consider new reforms.
At least as early as the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725), many in the Russian elite were fascinated by the technological, artistic, and intellectual achievements of Western Europe:
During the 1820s and 1830s Russian thought was influenced powerfully by several waves of German Romantic idealism and then the philosophy of Hegel, both of which raised...the concept of distinct national identity and of 'inevitable' historical progress... (Wasiolek, 3)
After the Crimean War (1853–1856) however, the Russian Nihilists rejected the German-influenced liberals of the 1830–40s generation, decrying previous reforms as ineffective. Both sets of reformers were opposed by the conservative Slavophiles, who sought to defend established traditions and values. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's political novel Demons (1872) dramatically illustrates the conflict between these three groups.
- Online Etymology Dictionary s.v. "nihilism"
- Nihilism, Anarchy, and the 21st Century
- George Kennan and the Russian Empire: How America’s Conscience Became an Enemy of Tsarism by Helen Hundley
- Wasiolek, Edward. Fathers and Sons: Russia at the Cross-roads. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993. ISBN 0-8057-9445-X